Scroll Up

The Nile River

Though the Nile is one of the world's most famous rivers, many people aren't aware of its physical power, remarkable characteristics and unique history. Beginning in Burundi and flowing through Lake Victoria and onward, the Nile winds a whopping 4,200 miles through the continent of Africa. It is peculiar because it flows north while most other rivers flow south. The Nile is believed to be the world's longest river, though the Amazon comes in at a close second, and it discharges a tremendous 3.1 million litres of water per second.

The Nile has two major tributaries, known as the While Nile and the Blue Nile. While the White Nile is considered the primary stream, the Blue Nile brings most of the water and fertile soil. The White Nile likely begins in Burundi or Rwanda, and the Blue Nile begins in Ethiopia's Lake Tana. The two tributaries flow into Sudan and meet at its capital, Khartoum. Ultimately, the Nile ends in a large delta and empties into the Mediterranean Sea. What many don't know is that a third tributary once existed, too. The Yellow Nile fed into the river from the highlands of Chad until around 1000 BCE, when it dried up.


The banks of the Nile are rife with history, and the river has long been a physical, spiritual, and political presence in Egypt. Many historically significant sites dot its banks (including the Egyptian settlement Rosetta, where the Rosetta Stone was discovered), as do major modern cities like Cairo. The Nile was hugely significant to the civilizations of ancient Egypt. Many people settled along its banks because of the fertile soil there, in the middle of an otherwise inhospitable desert region. It also provided drinking water, a way to travel, and plenty of papyrus reeds, which were used for construction or to make paper.

Interestingly, the Nile flooded each year between June and September, inundating the civilizations along its banks. The ancient Egyptians referred to the river as "Ar" - which means "black" - due to the black sediment left behind when the floods receded. While they did not consider the river itself a deity, they considered the yearly flood a manifestation of  Hapi, their god of abundance.


The Nile's annual inundation was such an integral part of their desert life that ancient Egyptians called rain, present in other lands, "inundation from the sky". However, the great river doesn't flood anymore; it hasn't for more than four decades. Before, the Nile would swell each season with heavy summer rain and melted snow from the mountains in Ethiopia. In 1970, the construction of the Aswan dam allowed the annual flood to be controlled.

Currently, the Nile's water resources are shared by eleven countries: Egypt and Sudan, for which is it the primary source of water, as well as Burundi, Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, South Sudan, and Uganda. Egypt is reluctant to cede the protections and majority share of the Nile's water afforded to it by colonial-era treaties, since about 90% of its water needs are satisfied by the river. This has caused conflict among the Nile nations for decades, since some upstream nations want water resources to be shared more equally. The Nile Basin Initiative has been formed to promote cooperation among the states dependent on this prodigious river.

Return to Articles